Nokia's 1020: A Camera That Makes Phone Calls

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With your eyes closed, you can tell Nokia’s new Lumia 1020 isn’t like other smartphones: Just feel for the large, round protrusion on its back.

That bump (which also makes it impossible to grab the phone upside down by mistake) surrounds the 1020′s core selling point, a 41-megapixel lens that takes the best phone photos I’ve seen, better even than the iPhone 5′s output.

Invisible Smartphone on the Horizon?

How good? People had trouble telling its photos from the work of a Canon digital SLR – even the owner of that D-SLR got fooled a few times. (I’ve shared sample photos and one video on Flickr.) Its flash could use a little more subtlety, but its low-light performance, aided by the optical image stabilization common on “real” cameras but absent from most phones, as well as an unusually large image sensor, was adept enough I could often dispense with the flash.

These 41-megapixel images weigh in at about 12 megabytes each, so the 1020′s camera also generates an “oversampled” 5-megapixel version of each shot that you can upload with less fear of blowing through AT&T’s data caps.

But shutter lag is as bad here as on most phone cameras — it’s not the optimal tool for taking pictures of fidgety toddlers.

App Lets You Map Rooms Like a Bat

And Nokia’s software got in the way of this camera in a couple of ways. Its clumsy panorama-creation interface yielded fractured-looking photos, and the goofy animated GIFs you can create with its Cinemagraph option seem to be as difficult to share on the Web as the Samsung Galaxy S 4′s multimedia-enriched photos.

As a phone, the 1020, a steep $299.99 with a two-year contract for new or renewing AT&T subscribers, both benefits and suffers a bit from its Windows Phone 8 operating system.

Battery life here was a little better than what its combination of an average-capacity, 2,000 milliamp-hour battery and a large, 4.5-inch screen might suggest. In my worst-case test, playing Web radio nonstop with the screen kept on, it lasted 6 hours and 29 minutes — better than many other phones, not outstanding.

WP8′s “live tiles” interface remains a pleasant way to stay on top of your schedule and all the ways people can bug you electronically these days. And unlike Android, Windows Phone makes it easy to kick off the bloatware AT&T loads on the phone; tap and hold on an unwanted app, then select “Uninstall.”

Transformer Smartphones Morph to Fit Function

But WP8′s navigational utility has taken a big step back with Microsoft’s decision to let Nokia drive its mapping efforts, the Nokia Here Maps app on the 1020 was even farther behind on recent changes to Washington-area roads and destinations than Apple Maps.

Windows Phone’s stock of applications has doubled to about 160,000 since last year’s flagship Nokia smartphone, the 900, failed to draw a crowd. That increase includes recent additions from such high-profile developers as Hulu Plus and Tumblr, but the continued absence of some name-brand titles (for instance, MLB’s At Bat or the Spotcycle app I use with Washington’s Capital Bikeshare) and the halfhearted efforts of others (Uber unpublished its own app after it drew scathing reviews) remain frustrating.

Microsoft has done a lot to try to fix this, including spending its own money to get Windows Phone versions of popular apps. But the most effective way to increase the selection of Windows Phone software is to have more Windows Phone users. Will a $300 phone that takes amazing photos help expand the market like that? I’m not so sure.

Credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters/Corbis